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Law firm rankings are abundant, but not created equal

Lynne Donaghy

Lynne Donaghy

Sherry Vance

Sherry Vance


If you think football is competitive, try the field of law, where a lot can be at stake in legal actions that can have far-ranging economic impacts. But unlike the end of a football game when a winner is declared, it often isn’t so easy to judge the effectiveness of attorneys. But there certainly is no shortage of national organizations that rank lawyers.

Some of the biggest names in lawyer rankings are is Chambers USA, U.S. News-Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms,” Best Lawyers in America 2016, Lawdragon 500, and National Black Lawyers Top 100.

Lynne S. Donaghy, director of marketing and business development, Phelps Dunbar LLP, said the firm focuses primarily on three rankings — Chambers, Best Lawyers and Super Lawyers.

“There are so many out there (over 1,200 I recently read), so we needed to prioritize our time and resources,” Donaghy said. “We do not participate in rankings where you have to pay to be listed. Each has a different judging and selection process. Most involve a nominating and voting element. Best Lawyers and Super Lawyers are peer driven and rely on votes from other lawyers, either in the same city/state or practice area. Both pick the top vote recipients or a certain percentage at the top. And you can vote for lawyers inside your firm and outside.”

Donaghy said Chambers is much more intense:  firms submit submissions annually by state and practice that includes lawyers to be considered for inclusion, recent matters handled by the lawyers and client references. Chambers researchers conduct interviews with firms and clients to gather information in order to make the selections based on the feedback. Chambers ranks both lawyers and firms by state and practice area.

The selection process for different ranking groups vary. Donaghy said Chambers is a little bit of a mystery. They rely on interviews of other lawyers and clients and applicants don’t have access to what is said by clients unless it is printed in the directory.

“We find it also takes several years for a high profile lawyer or a certain successful practice area to be ranked,” Donaghy said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. This tends to be frustrating to attorneys who wonder why they aren’t ranked and their peers are.”

Donaghy said Chambers is the most competitive of the rankings. She said with the others, it is important to go through the process every year to not only get new lawyers ranked, but also maintain the rankings they have. Other rankings require very little effort and oftentimes attorneys will receive an email saying they have been ranked without doing anything. She is skeptical about the value of those.

Lawyers have heavy work schedules. Donaghy said at their firm, their marketing and business development department handles submissions for the most part due to lawyer’s schedules and the large amount of work needed to apply for the most prestigious rankings.

“For the voting ones that require their participation, we provide instructions, send reminders and follow up to be sure they did it,” she said. “For Chambers, we coordinate the submissions, but it still requires work from our attorneys by providing us details on matters and the clients they want to be contacted. For 4-5 months we have three people in marketing working on these submissions, which are broken down by state and practice.

“We try to handle the lion’s share of the work, but it still requires some effort from the lawyers if they want to be ranked. If we focused on all of the awards and rankings that exist we wouldn’t have time for more important items related to client service and development.”

What is the payback for these awards?

Donaghy said that is a tough question to answer. Lawyers and firms value these rankings because it provides them exposure and makes them feel good. And no one wants to be omitted from a list where their peers and primary competitors appear.

“But we marketing professionals are skeptical of all of the listings,” Donaghy said. “According to research and comments from general counsels and decision makers, these directories don’t have an impact on firms and lawyers they hire.

“Plus, there are a few other factors that affect the value in my opinion. First, there has been a flooding of rankings and awards over the last five years, so it is difficult for everyone to keep up and determine which ones are of value. Second, most of these directories are also selling expanded listings, advertising, logos to use on marketing materials, etc. and this can be very costly and dilutes the significance of them, in my opinion. For a firm with several offices and more than 250 attorneys, we couldn’t possibly purchase these benefits.”

Sherry Vance Allen, chief marketing and communication officer with Butler Snow, another large law firm in the state that receives a lot of awards, agrees it can be hard to access the effectiveness of the award regarding the amount of business brought in.

“Certainly, it proves as good public exposure,” Allen said. “But as to business generated, that is a more difficult measure.”

Butler Snow puts the most value on awards from organizations like Chambers that do extensive research for the rankings.

“Chambers USA is one of the most credible and respected sources of information for the legal community,” said Donald Clark Jr., Chairman of Butler Snow. “We are honored that our attorneys were recognized as leaders in these fields.”

Chambers USA 2015 ranked 40 of Butler Snow’s attorneys as leaders in their fields.

Allen said that the ranking organizations develop and use different criteria, some more diligent than others. Some rely on peer reviews, client interviews and others, quite frankly, simply rely on submissions they directly distribute to attorneys for responses.

“Some of the publications may use these rankings as a strategy for revenue generation, so due diligence is important,” Vance said.

The competitiveness of the different ranking organization can vary, as the amount of time it takes to submit application. Those that do deeper, more meaningful and thorough research, can require a lot of time. She said others are far less time consuming and may only require submittals.


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About Becky Gillette